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Marco Rubio Muscles Up, Taking a Page from Newt Gingrich's Playbook

September 25, 2014 - 6:00pm

To get ahead in 2016, Marco Rubio is looking back to the past, specifically to 1994 when the Contract With America led Newt Gingrich and Republicans to victory.

Rubios star has fallen considerably as the 2016 presidential race continues to take shape. After Mitt Romney went down to defeat, Rubio started out in the top tier of 2016 Republican hopefuls. But his high profile on immigration reform as part of the Senates Gang of Eight turned conservatives off him, regulating him to the second tier.

Since then, Rubio has tried various tactics and played up several issues to get back into conservatives good graces: repealing Obamacare, trying to limit abortion, backing a more muscular foreign policy. None of it had quite worked to return Rubio to the front of the 2016 pack, even as the likes of Chris Christie and Rand Paul ebb and flow in the polls.

This week, Rubio tried to think big. Offering his take on the 20th anniversary of Gingrichs Contract With America, Rubio played up American exceptionalism and called for the restoration of the American dream, arguing that was what Gingrich did to lead the GOP to a big win in 1994.

It was led by a remarkable idea man: Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, then minority whip and future speaker of the House, Rubio wrote about the Contract With America in a piece for Newsmax. He partnered with other Republican leaders, including Texas Rep. Dick Armey and policy leaders at the Heritage Foundation, to craft a revolutionary collection of ideas for restoring the promise of America. Every Republican candidate signed the contract -- and that November, the American people gave it their stamp of approval by giving Republicans the majority.

In fact, Rubio argued his legislative proposals, including his and Mike Lees tax reforms released earlier in the week, were in the same vein, putting a Gingrichian spin on them.

My proposals would make higher education accessible to everyone, spur the transformative innovation that can create new industries and millions of jobs, open America to the possibilities and realities of our increasingly globalized economy, save our crucial retirement programs from self-destruction, and encourage rather than punish marriage and parenthood, Rubio wrote.

Its an interesting tactic from Rubio. Back in 2010, when he chased Charlie Crist out of the Republican primary in a major upset, Rubio did well when he offered what George H.W. Bush famously called the vision thing. Talking about American exceptionalism and the larger consequences of legislation and election helped Rubio blow out Crist and Kendrick Meek in the general election.

But there are perils in offering too much of a vision as Gingrich can certainly attest. During the 2012 primaries, Gingrich beat Romney in South Carolina and led the polls in Florida. A win in Florida would have been a major blow to Romney. But Gingrich went off into the weeds, even offering a vision of a moon colony which could eventually wind up as the 51st state. When the votes were in, Romney utterly routed Gingrich in Florida and was on his way to the Republican nomination.

Rubio can and should think big if he is serious about running for president and there are signs that the GOP could use a healthy vision. At an event in Washington earlier this month honoring the 20th anniversary of the Contract With America, Gingrich said he did not expect Republicans to do as well in November as they had in 1994 since they were not offering a united vision. But the GOP is far more fractured now than it was 20 years ago: establishment vs. the tea party, neocons vs. paleocons, internationalists vs. isolationists, economic conservatives vs. social conservatives. Rubio will find the task of offering the GOP and voters a vision for the future much more difficult than Gingrich did 20 years ago.

Tallahassee-based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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